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for the Clothing

Union of Needletrades, Industrial

and Textile Employees

Institute for Work & Health

Occupational Health Clinics

for Ontario Workers Inc.
Ergonomic Handbook for the Clothing Industry

Published by the Union of Needletrades, Industrial

and Textile Employees, the Institute for Work &
Health, and the Occupational Health Clinics for
Ontario Workers, Inc.

Copyright ©  

Research and writing team: Jennifer Gunning,

Jonathan Eaton, Sue Ferrier, Eric Frumin, Mickey
Kerr, Andrew King, Joe Maltby.

Project funding: Workplace Safety & Insurance

Board (WSIB #)

Cover photo: Christine Bernacki, a member of 

Local 459 in Winnipeg (photo by Bruce Knowles,
 archives)

Handbook design: Art Kilgour, WriteDesign

Printing: Thistle Printing


Preface · 

Acknowledgements · 2

Our research team · 3

Introduction · 5

What is ‘ergonomics’ anyway? · 7

Common Ergonomic Problems

and Solutions in the Clothing Industry · 11

Cutting Department · 12

Assembly Department · 24

Pressing Department · 42

Finishing Department · 51

Conclusion · 63

Find out more · 63


Injuries and muscle pain affecting the wrists, shoulders,

neck and back are common problems for workers in the
clothing industry. The purpose of this project was to look
at conditions in the clothing industry to find out how
these injuries start and how they can be prevented.
Twenty-nine Ontario clothing manufacturers participated
in the study. Two representatives in each workplace, one
worker and one manager, completed a survey about their
organization. Then we conducted an ergonomic assess-
ment of five jobs in each workplace. Our researchers
identified many features in clothing plants that could be
improved to prevent injuries including:
involvement of employees in decision making,
education and training of employees and manage-
ment on prevention strategies, and
the ergonomic conditions in the plant.
The project’s final report brings together all of the
information gained from this research. This handbook
focuses on the potential ergonomic problems and solu-
tions that were identified during our plant visits. We hope
this handbook can be used to initiate changes in the

ergonomic handbook · 1
workplace by creating a starting point for discussion and
stimulating ideas on how conditions in our plants can be


At the outset we want to thank the close to 200 workers

and management representatives who directly partici-
pated in the project by taking part in interviews and
participating in ergonomic audits of their workstations.
Under the confidentiality protocol governing this project,
employers and participating individuals cannot be identi-
fied by name. But to all who took part – thanks!
This project was made possible by a grant from the
Research Advisory Council of the Ontario Workplace
Safety & Insurance Board (wsib). Robert Boucher,

Members of our project’s reference group included: (back row,

l-r) Joe Maltby, Judy Lackner, Sue Ferrier, Mickey Kerr, Nello
Corsetti and (front row) Jenny Ahn, Jennifer Gunning and
Jonathan Eaton. (Missing from the photo are Steve Kalantzis,
Harry Mohabir, Alita Morando and Rudi Trevisan.)

2 · ergonomic handbook
Manager of the wsib Research Secretariat, provided
advice and assistance throughout the project.
The Co-Directors and staff of the unite Ontario
Council made a key contribution to the project, linking
the project coordinator to the industry and facilitating
access to all of the plants that took part. The research also
benefited from the advice and comments of a committee
of union and management representatives, which in-
cluded Jenny Ahn, Nello Corsetti, Steve Kalantzis, Judy
Lackner, Harry Mohabir, Alita Morando and Rudi

Our research team

As project coordinator, Jennifer Gunning was primarily

responsible for completing this project. She was assisted
by a diverse research team that included Sue Ferrier and
Mickey Kerr (Institute for Work & Health [iwh]),
Andrew King and Joe Maltby (Occupational Health
Clinics for Ontario Workers [ohcow]), and Jonathan
Eaton and Eric Frumin (Union of Needletrades, Indus-
trial and Textile Employees). Marjan Vidmar and
Sheilah Hogg-Johnson at the Institute pulled together
lost-time injury statistics for the Ontario clothing indus-
try. We would like to thank the wsib for providing access
to these data. Our summer intern, Seemi Sood, assisted
with survey tabulation and researching industry trends.
Thanks also to Mary Cook, Managing Director of the
ohcow, who acted as Administrator for this project, and
Michael Roche (Manager, Financial Support, ohcow)
for providing accounting services and preparing the
project’s financial report.

ergonomic handbook · 3

The clothing industry is generally seen as a safe place

to work. Compared to other industries, there are rela-
tively few serious accidents in clothing plants. The
hazards we face are different. The major health risks in
this industry do not arise from immediate, potentially
fatal hazards. Instead, the risks that clothing workers face
come from more subtle hazards whose effect accumu-
lates over time.
Research shows that sewing machine operators face a
substantially higher risk of muscle pain and injury than
workers in other jobs. Studies also show that the fre-
quency of persistent neck and shoulder injuries increases
with years of employment. One report found that sewing
machine operators experience as many cases of repetitive
strain injuries as data entry keyers and secretaries com-
bined. These injuries lead to long-term health effects.
This is why we wanted to look at the working conditions
that can lead to such high rates of disability for clothing
Research has consistently found that the physical
characteristics of the job are an important risk factor for
muscle pain and injury. The risks for sewing machine
operators have been linked to conditions such as poor

ergonomic handbook · 5
workstation design and chairs, and organizational factors
such as the piecework system.
Factors such as repetition, force, posture and vibration
are associated with higher rates of injury. But you can’t
look at the workstation alone to understand these inju-
ries. There is growing evidence that other factors are
linked to injuries. These include:
high work pace,
lack of control over the job,
co-worker support and
the general work environment.
On the other hand, researchers have identified factors
that relate to reduced injury rates. These factors include
empowerment of the workforce, delegation of safety
activities, greater seniority of the workforce, good house-
keeping and an active role of top management.
Few studies, however, have investigated physical and
organizational risk factors at the same time in more than
one workplace. And most studies have focused only on
sewing machine operators, leaving out workers in other jobs.
The purpose of this study was to document and de-
scribe the current work conditions throughout the cloth-
ing industry. We went to 29 clothing plants in Ontario.
Two representatives in each workplace, one worker and
one manager, completed a questionnaire on work organi-
zation in their plants. Two trained ergonomists con-
ducted assessments of jobs in the cutting, assembly,
pressing and finishing departments in each plant. We
focused on identifying good practices that are in use in
the industry. Our goal in creating this handbook is to
share these good practices so that injuries can be reduced
across the industry.

6 · ergonomic handbook
What is ‘ergonomics’ anyway?

Ergonomics is a topic that affects us all; yet few of us

have a good understanding of what the term actually
means or realize how it affects us.
Ergonomics is a science that focuses on designing a
job for the worker. An ergonomically-designed job would
ensure that a taller worker had enough space to safely
perform his or her job, and also that a shorter worker
could reach all of his or her tools and products without
reaching beyond a comfortable and safe range. The
opposite to this, and what typically happens in the
workplace, is that a worker is forced to work within the
confines of the job or workstation that is already in place.
This may require employees to work in awkward pos-
tures, perform the same motion over and over again or
lift heavy loads – all of which could cause work-related
musculoskeletal disorders (wmsd).
These injuries often start as minor aches and pains but
can develop into disabling injuries that affect our activi-
ties of daily living such as laundry, hobbies (knitting, golf,
etc.) and even the ability to pick up our children.
Ergonomics aims at preventing injuries by controlling
the risk factors such as force, repetition, posture and
vibration that can cause injuries to develop. Some
fundamental ergonomic principals that should be fol-
lowed in our workplaces are:

1. Use proper tools

Tools should be appropriate for the specific tasks being
performed. Your tools should allow you to keep your
hands and wrists straight – the position they would be in

ergonomic handbook · 7
if they were hanging relaxed at your side. Bend the tool –
not the wrist!
The tool should fit comfortably into your hand. If the
grip size is too large or too small it will be uncomfortable
and will increase the risk of injury. Tools should not have
sharp edges, create contact stresses in your hand, or

2. Keep repetitive motions to a minimum

Our workstations or tasks can often be redesigned to
reduce the number of repetitive motions that must be
performed. Using a power-driven screwdriver or tools
with a ratchet device can reduce the number of twisting
motions with the arm. Some tasks can be automated or
redesigned to eliminate repetitive movements and
musculoskeletal injuries.

3. Avoid awkward postures

Your job should not require you to work with your hands
above shoulder height on a regular basis. Arms should be
kept low and close to your body. Bending and twisting of
your wrists, back and neck should also be avoided.

8 · ergonomic handbook
4. Use safe lifting procedures
Avoid lifting objects that are too heavy. Use more than
one person or a mechanical device to reduce the load.
Your workstation should not require you to lift objects
above your head or twist your back while lifting. Keep the
load close to your body and ensure that you have a good
grip. Heavy and frequently lifted objects should be stored
between knee and shoulder height – not on the ground
or above your head.

5. Get proper rest

You need to rest your body and mind in order to prevent
injuries. Give your muscles a rest during your coffee
breaks, lunches and weekends by doing something
different from what you do in your job. For example, if
you stand all day while performing your job you should
sit down to rest your legs and feet during your breaks. If
you sit down when working you should stand up and
walk around during your breaks to give your back a rest
and to increase circulation in your legs.
Remember: musculoskeletal injuries can be prevented.
The remainder of this booklet takes a closer look at some
common ergonomic problems and solutions in the
clothing industry.

ergonomic handbook · 9
Common Ergonomic
Problems and Solutions
in the Clothing Industry

During the course of this study, we were able to do

ergonomic assessments of 131 jobs at the 29 plants we
visited. We identified common ergonomic problems in
each of the four departments: cutting, assembly, pressing
and finishing. We looked at work practices that create
hazards for workers and also techniques that reduce the
Since we looked at just four to seven jobs in each
plant, there may be additional ergonomic solutions that
we did not see. However, the list of what we did find is
extensive and provides many suggestions for reducing the
risk of injuries in clothing plants.
These solutions may not be appropriate in all situa-
tions. Management and workers need to jointly assess
jobs in their plant to determine the right solutions for the
specific problems they face.

ergonomic handbook · 11
Cutting Department

The primary tasks in the cutting department are:

Loading the spreading machine
Spreading the fabric
Cutting the fabric
Stacking cut pieces


Loading the spreading machine involves lifting a bolt of
fabric from the floor into a spreader, or on to a spreading
table if the fabric is spread by hand.

Loading by hand. Bolts of fabric lifted by hand are very
heavy and create a substantial risk of low back injury.

Loading with a fixed assist accompanying the spreader.

Bolts are rarely in the proper location to be picked up by
the fixed assist – operators have to manoeuvre the bolt by

spreader bar
in the bolt of

Note: poor posture required due to low

location of bolt, but a good technique is
used for ensuring the bolt is in position
(sloped skid).

12 · ergonomic handbook
Operators have to lift a metal spreader bar and place it
through the centre of the bolt before it is lifted. This bar
is sometimes very heavy and awkward to place in the bolt.

Loading with a movable assist or hoist. Spreaders that

require the bolt of fabric to be threaded with a spreader
bar – some bars are very heavy.
Bolts located on the floor require the operator to adopt
a stooped or squat posture to thread the bar. When no
spreader bar is required the operator has to lift one end of
the bolt at a time to attach the hoist.

Loading with a ramp. Gravity can be used to load the

spreader. The bolt of fabric is lifted onto a ramp by a
forklift truck. The bolt then rolls directly into the
spreader without manipulation by the operator. The
problem with this technique is that it can only be used
with certain types of spreaders.

Loading by hand. This technique is not the best. If it is
necessary, limit the risk by:
limiting the weight of the bolt,
using two people to lift the bolt,
using the turntable on the spreader to assist with lifting
one end of the bolt at a time,
using hand-made bolt stands to assist with lifting to a
tall spreader.

ergonomic handbook · 13
bolt stand,
used to assist
lifting a bolt
into a tall

Loading with a fixed assist accompanying the spreader.

This technique has a lower risk of injury than loading by
Place the bolts on a sloped skid so they are in the
proper position for loading.
Bolts should be located near waist height of the opera-
tor to improve posture when placing the metal spreader
bar through the bolt.

Loading with a movable assist/hoist. Electric hoists are

better than manual hoists.
The bolt of fabric should be delivered at approxi-
mately waist height.
If no spreader bar is required the operator should not
have to lift the bolt at all, for example the ends of the bolt
could overhang the skid or bolt jack so that the hoist
could be attached without lifting.

loaded with a
fixed assist
the spreader.

14 · ergonomic handbook
Ramp for
loading the

Loading with a ramp. From an ergonomics perspective,

the ramp is the best technique for loading the bolt of
fabric into the spreader.


Spreading by hand. Long reaches are required to cut
across the width of the fabric each time a layer is com-
pleted or flaws are removed from the fabric.

Spreading with a fixed holder that holds the bolt in

place at the end of the spreading table. A long reach is
required to cut across the width of the fabric.

Manual spreading. Using a spreading machine that the

operator pushes back and forth on the spreading table.


ergonomic handbook · 15
Operators have the long reach across the table to cut
the fabric and they have to manually pick up weights to
hold the fabric down each time a layer is completed
before spreading the fabric in the other direction.

Automated spreading. Operators either ride on a plat-

form or walk beside the automatic spreader as it moves
along the table.
Operators often have to smooth the fabric while it is
being spread.
The table is often too low and operators have to bend
their backs while smoothing. This is a risky posture when
maintained for extended periods of time.

reaching to
smooth fabric

Spreading by hand. Use two people, one on each side of
the table, who cut towards each other. This reduces a lot
of the reaching and poor postures when cutting across
the width of the fabric.

Spreading with a fixed holder. Two people, one on

either side of the table, should cut towards each other.

16 · ergonomic handbook
Manual spreading. Use a fabric catcher to eliminate the
need for the operator to pick up and manipulate weights
to hold the fabric in place.
A blade attached to a wooden stick or a small round
electric saw with a long handle are tools that can elimi-
nate the extended reach.
Automatic cutters can also be attached to manual

Left: Fabric
Right: Blade
and wooden

Automated spreading. Determine first if manual

smoothing is required for all fabrics. If not required, this
task should not be performed.
Make sure the table and platform are at appropriate
heights for the operator, and the operator has something
to lean on to support his or her upper body weight while
smoothing the fabric.


There have been great advances in cutting technology in
the garment industry. However, not all workplaces are
using the latest technology. Not all plants want or need
high-tech cutting machines. We considered all of the
different techniques for cutting fabric while looking for
ergonomic problems and solutions.

ergonomic handbook · 17
Band saw. Excessive reaching caused by improper
workstation height.
Inability to get close to the blade.
Poor waste disposal.
Guarding is an issue with this technique.

Die cutters. Workstations that are too high require the

operator to work with raised arms. Workstations that are
too low require them to bend down.
Controls often require poor thumb postures.
Feeding fabric into the die cutter sometimes requires a
lot of forceful pulling.

Electric saws. Excessive reaching with shoulders and

Poor wrist postures.
Hand or arm vibration and contact pressure on the
hand when stapling the pattern to the fabric or perforat-
ing the layers of fabric.

required when
cutting with
an electric saw.

Automatic cutters. Sometimes it is difficult and requires

awkward postures to align the cloth being fed into the
automatic cutter.

18 · ergonomic handbook
The out-feed tables require a lot of reaching when
removing the fabric from the table.
Controls are not accessible and do not encourage
operators to advance the fabric to the end of the table,
which would reduce the amount of reaching.
The tracks that the automatic cutters move along
create a tripping hazard.

cutter that
would benefit
from controls
in a more
Note: controls to advance the out-feed
table are at the far side of the table.

Band saw. The table should be at an appropriate height
and the operator should be able to reach the blade
without fully extending his/her arms and leaning forward.

Die cutters. A good height for the cutting surface is

several inches below elbow height.
The input and the deposit surfaces should be at similar
heights and easily accessible.
A good orientation for the press is parallel to the
operator so the controls are accessible.
The best location for controls is directly in front of the
operator, at approximately elbow height.

ergonomic handbook · 19
The die can be located under the fabric. This is a good
technique for large, heavy dies so they do not have to be
picked up each time a new section of fabric is cut.

Die cutter at a
good working
height and a

Note: a raised platform was used to

bring the operator to a good height.

Electric saws. Improve shoulder and back posture by

setting the table and saw at a good working height for the
Extend the handle and cut from both sides of the table
to reduce excessive reaching.
Avoid poor wrist posture with an adjustable angle
Maintain saws and use a vibration-dampening handle
to reduce the amount of vibration.
The best weights for holding down the pattern are
small and have handles on the top. Clamps are also good
for holding the fabric in place.
A pattern tacker is good for stapling the pattern to the
fabric; it can be manipulated with one hand and causes
less contact stress on the hand than an office type stapler.
Adhesive spray can also be used to attach the pattern to
the fabric.

20 · ergonomic handbook
A good waste-disposal method is to use a garbage pail
firmly attached to a dolly.
Place anti-fatigue mats the length of the table to
reduce foot and leg fatigue.
Follow other good safety practices such as properly
adjusted guards, chain-mail gloves for straight-blade saw
operators, and regular maintenance on the blade to
ensure it is sharp and lubricated to minimize the force
required to push it through the fabric.

Small weight
and clamp for
holding the
pattern and
fabric in place.

Pattern tacker

Garbage pail
on wheels and
mats running
the length of
the cutting

ergonomic handbook · 21
Automatic cutters. Good solutions for the in-feed table
include air tables, tables no wider than necessary, and
using two people to align the cloth.
A good out-feed table has narrow sides to allow the
operator to get close to the cut fabric if it is necessary to
work from the sides of the table.
Working from the end of the table is preferred. Place
the controls in an accessible location to encourage the
operator to advance the fabric toward the end of the table
rather than to reach for it.
The out-feed table should also be adjustable in height
to meet the requirements of each operator.
Locate waste bins at the end of the table, running the
entire width of the table and providing space for feet
Install tracks flush with the floor to eliminate the
tripping hazard.
For low-ply cutters, folding the fabric in half before
cutting creates pieces that are mirror images of each
other. This folding procedure reduces the reach neces-
sary to remove cut pieces from the table.


Once the fabric has been cut it has to be removed from
the table and delivered to the assembly department.
Typically, a worker removes the piles by hand and stacks
them on rolling carts.

Piling cut fabric on skids or into large boxes or carts near
the floor requires a stooped posture.

22 · ergonomic handbook
The best carts for this job have one shelf that is at the
same height as the cutting table. The cut pieces can be
slid off the table directly onto the cart with very little
lifting by the operator.
Carts with multiple shelves located close together are
also good. This minimizes the operator’s range of lifting.
Another type of cart has three shelves. Only the top
two are used and the middle shelf slides out from either
side to allow easier access to it.

Good carts for

stacking cut

ergonomic handbook · 23
Assembly Department

The primary tasks in assembling clothing are:

• Sewing
• Loading automated rail system

Assembly tasks have many different components that
must be considered in an ergonomic assessment including:
• supply and removal of garments,
• sewing table,

• chair,
• floor surface,
• foot pedals,

• lighting,
• hand tools and
• work organization.

We will look at ergonomic problems and solutions for

each of these components.

Supply and removal of garments

Supply – methods used to hold the various pieces of the
unfinished garment at the workstation prior to the opera-
tor assembling them. Removal – deposit of the garment
once the operator has completed the job. The operator
has to reach to both the supply and removal locations at
least once in the work cycle.

Boxes. Large boxes that are low to the ground create an
awkward reach and bend during each pickup.

24 · ergonomic handbook
Tables. Tables are often made of overturned or full
Tables are in poor locations, unstable or garments fall
off them so operators have to reach to the floor to pick
them up.

Workhorses. Workhorses are too low creating an awkward

reach for the operator and are too smooth, causing the
garments to fall off.

Attachments to the sewing table. Wooden bars attached

to the sewing table are used as the supply location. These
bars are sometimes located too far from the operator, are
too small or allow the garments to slip off them.

Rolling carts. Problem carts are large and very low

creating an extended reach and bend when picking up
unfinished garments at the bottom of the cart.
Rolling shelving units are too low and sometimes
require the operators to lift the garment over the high rail
on the end of the unit.
Wheels are frequently in very poor repair and/or have
a build-up of thread on them. This makes the carts very
difficult to manoeuvre.

Bend and
reach to
garments from
a large cart.

ergonomic handbook · 25
Automated stackers. Stackers deposit the garments at a
low location that requires someone to bend down to pick
them up to move them on to the next workstation.

Non-automated rail system. Inflexible system with poor

work organization requires operators to manually remove
full hangers from the rail to transport them to another
workstation. This is a very awkward and heavy lift and

Automated rail system. Pieces not delivered to the

workstation at an ideal height require the operator to
reach, bend and/or twist to reach the garment.
Sewing tables larger than necessary do not allow the
operator to get close to the hanger.
A lot of force is required to hook and unhook the
garments from the hangers.
Hangers fall off the rail and the operators have to lift
them back on.
Buttons that control the movement of the hangers are
often too far away from the operator or in awkward
This system creates specialized, repetitive tasks and
segregated workstations.

Boxes. Place small boxes on a platform to supply the
operator with the necessary pieces at a good height and
within easy reach.

Tables. Tables should match the height of the sewing

table, or be slightly lower if bundles are placed on them.

26 · ergonomic handbook
They should be stable and sufficiently large or have
raised edges to contain the garments on the table.
Use friction tape if the fabric or table is too slippery.

Workhorses. These should be approximately the same

height as the table, close to elbow height of the operator,
and provide sufficient friction so that the garments do not
fall off.

Attachments to the sewing table. Bars extended from

the sewing table work well if they are close to the opera-
tor, at a good height and have friction tape on them to
help prevent the garments from falling off.
A trough located on the back of the sewing table is a
good deposit area when the operator has a short reach to
slide the garment into the trough.

Attachment to
sewing table
used for

Rolling carts. Make sure the cart is suitable for the task.
A simple but effective cart for lightweight garments is
a small wire frame on wheels with a shallow canvas liner.
The operator can reach the back and bottom of the cart

ergonomic handbook · 27
easily and the top of the cart is at the height of the sewing
Another good cart is a metal bin on wheels that is
open on both ends and has a shelf that can be placed
over the top to provide a higher surface. When on the
higher surface, the garments are at a good height for the
operators. When garments are in the open bin, hoists can
be used to lift the carts to an appropriate height.
The best rolling shelves have the shelf located near the
height of the sewing table and are large enough to
support the weight of the garments.
A specially designed cart that works well for specific
tasks is a small table on wheels that has clamps on the
top of it to hold the stacks of garments. During the
assembly tasks the garments do not have to be removed
from the clamps. The bottom of the cart is narrow in the
middle to allow it to get in close to the operator.
Eliminate the problem of thread in the wheels
through regular maintenance or use spherical castors that
do not get filled with thread.

Good carts
for some

28 · ergonomic handbook
Castors that
resist thread

Automated stackers. Stackers can eliminate the repeti-

tive reaching to deposit garments after the operator has
completed his or her task.
One good stacker that we saw was located close to the
operator who placed the garment in the clips. The clips
closed, and with the push of a button the stacker trans-
ported the garment and placed it neatly on a rolling cart.

Non-automated rail system. A good method is for the

operators to work on a raised platform so they can work
from the high rail without removing garments from the
hanger or having to reach above shoulder height for

A raised
platform that
brings the
workstation to
the height of
the non-

ergonomic handbook · 29
Automated rail system. A good practice is to leave the
garments attached to the hanger while performing the
assembly task.
Locate hangers directly beside the worker or sewing
The table should be as small as possible to allow the
garment to be close to the operator.
Place a low table under the hanger to help support
heavy garments and reduce the reach to lift them up
from ground level.
Place the controls for the system close to the common
working position of the hands without interfering with
the task, or integrate controls into foot controls.

Sewing Table
The dimensions of the sewing table that should be
considered are the:
• height,

• size,
• shape,
• tilt and

• leg room.

Height. Sewing tables are not easily adjustable. Tables
that are too high create elevated shoulder postures and
non-neutral elbow and wrist postures.
Tables that are too low cause the operator to lean
forward and flex his or her neck.

Size and shape. Some tables are not large enough to

support the weight of the garment.

30 · ergonomic handbook
Other tables are too large and get in the way of easy
pickup and deposit, particularly when using automated
transport systems.
Many tables are not the appropriate shape for the job.

Table angle. Almost all sewing tables are flat. Flat sewing
tables do not maximize visibility and compromise the
posture of the upper extremity and neck.

Leg room. Sewing machine operators have limited

legroom because of drawers and/or trash chutes attached
to the underside of the table.

Height. A good height for sewing tables is at or slightly
above elbow height.
The height should be easily adjustable with the press
of a button.

Size and shape. Sewing tables can be modified to meet

the requirements of specific garments, machines or
operators by:
Making the table smaller to allow carts to get close to
the sewing machine.

A sewing table
with an

ergonomic handbook · 31
Putting an addition on the table to increase the size of
the table. This can be helpful for supporting the weight
of large garments or for using the sewing table as the
input location.
Placing raised edges on the table, to help to keep the
material on the table.

Table angle. A few sewing tables that we saw were tilted

10° to 25° towards the operator. This tilt improves visibil-
ity of the task and helps to keep the neck in a more
upright position while having the table at an appropriate
height for the upper extremity.

Leg room. Make sure that operators have sufficient leg

room. Drawers and trash chutes either should be not
present or in a location that does not hinder leg room.

The chair is a critical piece of equipment for sewing
machine operators who work in a seated position. It can
have a very large impact on the comfort of the worker
and can affect the risk of muscle pain and injury.

Operators are provided with very poor chairs such as
stacking chairs. These chairs are not adjustable. They
provide no cushioning or back support and the edge of
the seat constricts blood flow at the back of the legs
because of a large rounded hump or square edge.

32 · ergonomic handbook
A poor chair
for prolonged

Some plants provide slightly better chairs that have

some height or back adjustment capabilities but they
cannot be adjusted quickly and easily and do not provide
sufficient back support.
Some plants purchase chairs that they believe are
ergonomically correct, but they do not meet the needs of
the operators. Common problems that occur when
buying ergonomic chairs are that one individual selects
the chair and it does not fit all or even most operators,
and it is not right for all tasks. For example, the chair may
have castors or may swivel when this is not right for the
Often the seat pan is too large, resulting in the
backrest not touching the back of the operator. The seat
pan may have an uncomfortable hump at the front,
causing the operator to sit on the front edge of the seat
and not use the backrest.
Individuals are not instructed in how to use the chairs
properly. Without proper training the many benefits of
ergonomic chairs are lost.

ergonomic handbook · 33
The best chairs have these features:
• a stable 5-point base of support;

• firm cushioning on the backrest and seat pan;

• the seat can be adjusted in height and tilt quickly
and easily;
• the seat does not have a hump on the front edge;
• the backrest can be adjusted in height and from
front to back;
• the seat pan is large enough to support the operator
but small enough so that he or she can use the backrest;
• the backrest does not interfere with the movement

of the shoulder blades or arms;

• the chair can swivel when operators have to turn
sideways frequently; and
• the chair has castors only where appropriate, and
not where it makes operators slide away from their
Let operators try the chairs on a temporary basis and
then let each operator select the chair that suits her or
him best. Allow operators to select from various seat pan
and backrest sizes and variable height adjustments. One
chair cannot fit all workers.

Good chairs
for some

34 · ergonomic handbook
Foot Pedals
Most sewing machine operators use one treadle, which
controls the direction and speed of the sewing machine.
Some operators use additional smaller pedals that lift the
presser foot or cut the thread.

Treadles are very rarely in a proper position for the
operators. They are either too far forward or too close to
the operator. Both problems are bad for the posture of the
Treadles are usually too small to be comfortably
operated by both feet, and some are at a very steep angle.
The pedal is usually not in a comfortable position.
When only one foot is used the operators rarely have a
footrest to support the non-working foot.
For standing operations the pedals are too high,
requiring the operator to balance on one leg, and they
cannot be moved to rotate the effort between both legs.

One plant that we saw had increased the size of the
treadles by placing a thin wooden board over the surface
of the pedal. It was located at the most comfortable
position and angle for the operator. If a pedal was re-
quired it was at the same angle and position as the treadle
and was easily accessible by one of the feet. If only one
foot was being used, a footrest was located at the same
height and angle as the treadle. Pedals for standing
operators were close to the floor and allowed the operator
to support her or his body weight over both feet. The
pedal could be moved so that the operator could rotate
between activating the pedal with her or his right or left foot.

ergonomic handbook · 35
Treadle and
foot pedal at
the same angle
and position.

Foot pedal
that has been
extended so
that both feet
fit on it

Knee Switches
Some operators use knee switches to control the presser

Knee switches are located in a poor position and are
hard, creating contact stress on the leg.

Place the knee switch so that it rests very close to the leg,
just above the knee, and is well padded.

Hand Controls
Some automated sewing operations are activated with
hand controls rather than foot controls.

36 · ergonomic handbook
Controls are too far from the operator.
Requires excessive force and unnatural direction to

Ensure controls are located in a convenient position
without being in the way.
Controls should be activated with a light touch ap-
plied at multiple angles.

Floor surface
Some assembly tasks are performed from a standing
position. When working in a standing position the floor
surface is very important to the comfort of the worker and
may influence the risk of injury.

Operators stand for extended periods of time on hard

Provide standing operators with good quality anti-fatigue
mats that cover the entire working area.
Provide operators with a footrest and a sit-stand stool to
help relieve the stress on the feet, legs and back.
Allow operators to rotate between sitting and standing
work positions.

Lighting plays an important role in ergonomics for
sewing machine operators. Without proper lighting,
operators may be encouraged to adopt poor postures in

ergonomic handbook · 37
order to see their work better; they may strain their eyes
or be less productive. Lighting requirements depend on
the task, fabric and individual preferences.

Workstations are too dim.
Light sources are not arranged properly and shadows
create uneven light across the work surface.
Shiny surfaces that reflect light or task lights that shine
directly into the operator’s eyes create glare.

Ensure there is good general lighting and task lights are
provided for operators who desire them or have visually
demanding tasks.
The task lights should have a “goose-neck” so the light
can be directed to the work area.
Lampshades should have ventilation holes, but where
necessary these can be covered so that the light is not
directed through these holes towards the operator.

Task light with


38 · ergonomic handbook
Hand tools
Sewing machine operators frequently use several tools
such as scissors or knives and occasionally hammers.

Scissors. Large, heavy scissors are used for trimming
threads and are held by the blade to provide accuracy.
Operators cut through several layers of fabric with
scissors that are too small and do not provide enough
Scissor handles are narrow and create contact stresses.
Scissors are dull and require excessive force to operate.

scissors are

Note: These scissors are all appropriate

for different applications.

Knives. Knives without handles are used to remove


Hammers. Inappropriate items are used for hammering

seams on garments such as ball peen hammers and

ergonomic handbook · 39
Scissors. Operators should have appropriate scissors for
the task such as small, light clippers or a finger cutter to
trim thread, and long scissors that provide leverage for
cutting through several layers of fabric.

Knives. Knives for removing seams should have a small

blade and a large comfortable handle.

Hammers. A dead blow hammer is better when operators

must use a hammer to flatten seams.

Work Organization

Assembly tasks are very repetitive and provide the opera-
tors with little opportunity for rest.
Many operators perform only one operation with no
job rotation.
The repetitive nature of the job is made worse by
automated delivery systems or by other workers deliver-
ing unfinished garments to the operators.
“Team work” systems do not always provide task
diversity for all operators.
Workstation adjustment policies are not very effective
because of lack of training of both the operators and the
individuals responsible for the adjustments.
Workplaces have no limit to bundle sizes and they
sometimes are much too large.

Organize work so that operators get up from their
workstation to pick up their next work order.

40 · ergonomic handbook
Repetitive strain can be reduced when operators
assemble large parts or full garments. This decreases
repetition and increases variability and skill.
Set reasonable limits for bundle sizes.


Parts being loaded are poorly organized.
The working height of the table is almost always too
low and the height of the hangers is always too high.
Operators are not able to adjust the height of any
workstation components.

The best loading workstation that we saw had the parts
arranged on a table to the left and a cart to the right of
the worker. The hanger was located directly in front of
the worker, which allowed her to use both arms to lift the
heavy garment pieces. The foot pedal used to activate the
movement of the hangers was low to the ground and easy
to operate. The worker was standing on a good quality
anti-fatigue mat.
The hanger should be below shoulder height and the
table or carts holding the pieces should be at or slightly
above waist height.
If loading from large piles, the height of the table
should automatically adjust with the height (weight) of
the pile.
The workstation should be adjusted to accommodate
different workers (for example, an adjustable platform).

ergonomic handbook · 41
Pressing Department

The primary tasks in the pressing department are:

• Hand Iron
• Manual Press

• Automatic Press
• Fusing
First we will look at the common aspects of these tasks.
Then, we will talk about special considerations for each of
these tasks.

Working height. Ironing surfaces that are too low force
the operator to assume a flexed back and neck posture
while working.
Surfaces that are too high require operators to work
with their shoulders and arms elevated.

Floor surface. Pressing operations are performed stand-

ing up and many pressing workstations do not have anti-
fatigue mats on top of hard floor surface.

Foot pedals. Operators use foot pedals to either activate

vacuum suction on hand ironing tables or to activate

Manual press
with high foot

42 · ergonomic handbook
steam and the movement of the press for manual and
automatic presses.
Foot pedals not close to the floor require the operator
to balance on one leg. Small pedals are difficult to locate.

Input and Output. Hanging garments are located too

high and require extended reaches to pick up and deposit
Garments piled on boxes or carts are in a position that
is too low and requires bending and reaching.

Lighting. Inadequate lighting creates shadows and glare

on some pressing surfaces increasing the visual demand
on the operator.

Working height. A good working height permits opera-
tors to work with their shoulders relaxed and their backs
in an upright position.
A working height that is easily adjustable is ideal. This
enables an individual operator to adjust the height
throughout the day to change the body parts that are
carrying greater stress. It also allows the workstation to be
adjusted to accommodate different operators.
Tilting the work surface toward the operator is often
possible with pressing operations and can improve
posture and visibility.

Floor surface. Ensure that pressing operations have anti-

fatigue mats covering the entire working area.

ergonomic handbook · 43
Foot pedals. A good pedal for hand ironing that we saw
was an almost vertical kick plate that extended the length
of the table. The operator could simply slide her or his
foot forward to activate it.
Good pedals for manual and automated presses are
close to or even with the floor; frequently used pedals are
most accessible and are directly in line with the foot.

Hand pressing
with a good
foot pedal.

Input and Output. A good practice that we saw for

hanging garments was rolling racks with accessory bars
that hung several inches below the height of the rack.
This reduced the reaching during input and output.
Two good practices when using carts for holding piled
garments are:
1. hoists to lift low carts to a good height for standing
2. carts located a few inches below elbow height of the
worker that hold piles of garments, the carts can be
rotated to place each pile at a good location for
input and output.

Lighting. Position the press perpendicular to overhead

lights or use multiple light sources to improve visibility.

44 · ergonomic handbook

Iron. A steaming button too far from the handle of the
iron requires an extended thumb posture to activate.

Iron with
steam button
too far from
the handle.

Balancers. Some irons are not balanced by a spring from

a rod above the workstation. This makes the iron more
difficult to locate during a very rapid work cycle and the
operator has to use additional force to pick up and
manipulate the iron.
Some irons are not balanced properly and require
excessive force to reach all areas of the garment.

Upright steaming. Operators use the iron with the hot

surface in a vertical position to steam a garment. The
operator has to support the entire weight of the iron and
sometimes has to resist the counter force of the balance.

Catchers. Catchers acted to support the weight of the

garment while it was being pressed. Without a catcher in
place large garments have a tendency to slip off the work

ergonomic handbook · 45
surface, and it requires more force to position and reposi-
tion the garment.

Guarding. When heat guards are not in place, the

handles of steam irons and the steam they produce are
very hot.

Iron. Steam buttons directly beside the handle of the
iron can be activated with a good thumb posture and
some require a very light touch.

Iron with the

steam button
close to the

Balancers. A good balance supports the weight of the

iron just above the work surface, from a track that runs
parallel to the work surface. The track is on a slight angle
that returns the iron to an ideal position for the start of
the next cycle.

Upright steaming. Possibilities for improvement include

balancing an iron in a vertical position or using a light-
weight steamer rather than an iron.

Catchers. Catchers that support the weight of garments

being pressed reduce the force the operator has to use to
manipulate the garment. A good catcher that we saw was

46 · ergonomic handbook
a large surface that wrapped around the work surface
several inches below it.

Hand pressing
with a good
catcher and a
balanced iron.
Height of
could be

Guards. Some irons have a handle that is a comfortable

size for the operators hand and is made of a heat-resistant
material; they have a shield in place to protect the hand
from steam.


Controls. Hand controls are located too high and require
excessive force to activate.

Multiple Workstations. Some manual press operators

work from more than one press or alternate between
manual and hand pressing. When not designed properly
this causes unnecessary lifting and carrying through
cluttered walkways.

Controls. Both the closing of the press and the steam can
be activated with one well-designed foot pedal.

ergonomic handbook · 47
Multiple Workstations. A good design we saw for multi-
ple workstations was two manual presses parallel to each
other with sufficient but not excessive space between
them. The operator turns around and walks several paces
when switching from one press to the other.


Hand controls. Controls that are inaccessible require
awkward postures and excessive force to activate.

Foot space. Insufficient space for the automatic shirt-

press operators’ feet requires them to stand further away
from the work area which increases the reaching required.

Contact area. Automatic shirt-press operators often rest

against the press while they load the shirts. Some presses
have hard, sharp edges that create contact stress when the
operator rests on them.

Hand controls. Good hand controls that we saw were
two large, easily activated buttons that had to be activated
together. They were approximately hip width apart, in
front of the worker at waist height.

Foot space. An automatic shirt press that is tapered at the

bottom provides room for the feet and allows the operator
to get close to the work area.

48 · ergonomic handbook
Contact area. A pillow attached to the hard, sharp edge
of the press reduces contract stresses.
Placing foam around the edge is also recommended.

Fusing operations bind two fabrics together to make
them stronger.

In-feed. Operators who feed fabric into the fusing ma-
chine from a seated position do not have enough knee
space, causing them to sit further away from the fuser and
reach with a flexed back posture.
Standing operators have to carry fabric from the
worktable used for organizing fusing materials to the

Out-feed. Materials are hot when the operator has to

pick them up and they have to bend down low to reach

In-feed. A good fusing workstation includes a worktable
that is directly inline with the fuser so fabric can be slid

with worktable
directly inline
with fuser.

ergonomic handbook · 49
from one to the other. They should both be at a good
working height for the operator.

Out-feed. A fusing workstation with an automatic catcher

and stacker at the out-feed area allows the fabric to cool
before it is touched, and it presents the fabric at a good
height for pickup.

50 · ergonomic handbook
Finishing Department

The primary tasks in the finishing department are:

• Hand Sewing
• Final Inspection

• Packaging

The workers performing this task sew the finishing
touches on the garments, which may include buttons,
eyelets, sequins or fur. The important aspects of the task
to consider are:
• the work surface,
• the chair,

• the input/output technique and

• accessories.

Work surface. A non-existent or inappropriate work
surface results in the worker using his or her lap as the
work surface. This creates poor neck and back postures
that are maintained for extended periods of time and
increases stress on the legs and feet.

Chair. Hand sewers sit on poor chairs.

The chairs are not adjustable; they provide little or no
back support and limited cushioning.

Input/Output. Hand sewers must pick up the garments

prior to performing their task and deposit them once they
have completed it.
Typically sewers stand to remove the garment from a
high rail and place it on the rail again upon completion.

ergonomic handbook · 51
This requires the sewer to perform lifts with the arms
extended and elevated above shoulder height.

Accessories. Hand sewers are not provided with a footrest

to help relieve the stress on their legs and back while
Some are working in poorly lit areas, which can
encourage poor posture and result in eyestrain.
Workers are using inappropriate tools such as large,
heavy scissors for cutting thread.

A workstation
that could
benefit from
some ergo-
nomic im-

Work surface. A good work surface observed for this task
is a large, smooth table that supports the weight of the
garment. It should be located slightly above the elbow
height of the sewer.

Chair. Workers who are seated for extended periods of

time, require an adjustable chair with proper back
support and good cushioning.

52 · ergonomic handbook
Input/Output. Garments need to be delivered at a
height that does not require high, extended reaches.

Accessories. The best footrest we saw was a low shelf on

the table in front of the worker.
The footrest should be independent and adjustable so
that it can be placed in the most appropriate location.
Hand sewers should be working in a well-lit area.
They should use small clippers for cutting thread.

A hand sewing
with a large
work surface.
The height of
the work
surface and
the chair
could be

ergonomic handbook · 53
The task of final inspection typically involves visually
inspecting the garment for flaws, trimming threads along
seams and in some cases cleaning chalk or lint from the
garment. The important aspects of the task to consider
• the work surface,
• input/output,
• support surface,

• hand tools,
• lighting and
• work organization.

Work surfaces. Work surfaces that create problems
include rolling racks for hanging garments and flat
Rolling racks are typically too high and require reach-
ing above shoulder height.
Flat tables encourage poor neck or shoulder and wrist
posture depending on the height of the table.

Input/Output. Rolling racks create difficulties for input

and output, as they are typically too high.
Boxes sitting on the floor create problems because
they are too low.

Support surface. Final inspection is usually done from a

standing position.
Concrete floors can lead to fatigue in the legs, feet and
Often no seating option or footrests are provided.

54 · ergonomic handbook
Hand tools. Inspectors use large scissors that are heavy
and awkward to use and therefore require a lot of force to

Lighting. Inspectors work in poorly lit areas or ones with

inconsistent lighting. This can accentuate poor posture
and eyestrain.

Work organization. Inspectors work at a very rapid pace

and do not take scheduled breaks. This does not give the
body time to recover and is a risk factor for injuries.
Some inspectors have little variation in their tasks.
They rarely have to get up from their workstation since
garments are delivered directly to them.
Others have to carry large bundles of garments
through crowded walkways.

which could
be improved
with a new
work surface.

Work surface.
1. An inclined easel with clips holds the garment and
allows the inspector to sit or stand in an upright

ergonomic handbook · 55
position and not have to support the weight of the
garment. The inspector should select the desired
height for the easel and clips.
2. A large, inclined table improves the posture of the
neck and arms.

Input/Output. A rolling rack at an appropriate height

reduces the extended reaching. Preferable to this are
rolling carts that the garments are draped over, located
between waist and elbow height of the inspector.

Support surface. Provide good quality anti-fatigue mats

for inspectors.
Give inspectors the option to use a stool and to alter-
nate between sitting and standing throughout the day.

Hand tools. Small, sharp clippers are more suitable for

the task as they are easier to use and lighter than large
Ensure that clippers are available by storing them on a
shelf or hanging them directly beside the work surface.

Lighting. Inspection areas should be well lit and task

lights should be provided if the inspectors feel they are
Improve visibility by contrasting the colour of the
garment being inspected with the colour of the work

Work organization. Operators can meet or exceed

production expectations and still work at a comfortable
pace and take scheduled breaks. Inspection tasks have
been organized in some workplaces so that inspectors

56 · ergonomic handbook
have as much variability in their tasks as possible and do
not inspect the most difficult types of garments for
extended periods of time.

A final
with a good
work surface,
stool and anti-
fatigue mat.

In some cases, inspectors move from their work area to

get more garments to inspect. This change in posture can
be beneficial if a safe technique is used for transporting
the garments.

A final
with a large
inclined work
surface and
the option to
sit or stand
(stool is not
visible in the

ergonomic handbook · 57
This task can involve folding and packaging the garments
in a bag or a box. We looked at several operations for
packaging men’s dress shirts and special considerations
for these packaging stations will be described. Important
features to consider include:
• the work surface,
• input/output,
• support surface and

• accessories.

Work surface. Work surfaces are often flat tables that are
not height adjustable and are not at a height appropriate
for the worker.
When the table is too high the worker has to use an
elevated shoulder posture and when it is too low a poor
neck and back posture is the result.
Packaging tables are often too deep and require
excessive reaching to locate tools and supplies. This is
particularly true for the shirt folding tables.
Rolling carts are much too low and require the packer
to work with a very flexed back posture.
Overhead racks are too high and require elevated arm
postures and heavy overhead lifts.

Input. Cardboard boxes located on the floor.

Extremely high rolling racks.

Output. Garments are placed in very large cardboard

boxes that packers can barely reach over, or placed on
high, over-filled racks.

58 · ergonomic handbook
Tables or benches are at inappropriate heights.
Workers must lift and carry awkward, heavy boxes.

Support surface. Many packers are required to stand on

concrete floors without anti-fatigue mats.

Accessories. Some swift tackers require excessive force to

operate and create contact stresses in the hand.
Hangers are often very difficult to open and close.
Irons are heavy and require a poor thumb posture to
operate the steam.

Work surface. A good shirt-folding table that we saw had
been adjusted to an appropriate height for the packer by
placing wooden spacers under the legs. The packer could
reach all items at the back of the table without an ex-
tended reach. The tabletop had small recessed areas
close to the front of the table to hold small, frequently
used items.
We also saw a good automated bagging station. It was
at an appropriate height for the worker. The bagging
operation was semi-automated; air was used to blow the
bag open. The bag was automatically sealed and it slid
down a ramp into a box.

mated bagging

ergonomic handbook · 59
Input. A good input method is a shelf located at the back
of the work surface. It should be low and close to the
Storage bins can be located beside the bagging station
so that garments can be transferred from the bins to the
bagging station with limited reaching or lifting.
If rolling carts or boxes are used they should present
garments to the packer between waist and elbow height.

Output. A good output method is to place the packaged

garment on a shelf directly beside the operator. This shelf
feeds the garments directly to the next operator in the
Another good method we saw was to place packaged
garments into a box that the garments fit into perfectly.
This allows the packer to put the garment into the box
and not have to arrange it neatly by hand.
Conveyors can be used to transport full boxes, which
greatly reduces the amount of lifting required.
The packers placing garments into very large card-
board boxes should be able to easily reach over the side
of the box.
The overhead rails should not be over-full and require
excessive reaching.

Conveyors to
transport full
boxes of

60 · ergonomic handbook
Support surface. Place anti-fatigue mats over the entire
floor in the work area.

Accessories. Foot pedals for activating swift tackers or

folding tables should be located on the floor and should
be very thin but large enough for easy operation.
Some hangers are more difficult to use than others. If
packers rotate among different garment styles throughout
the day they will not be using the difficult hangers for
extended periods of time.
Choose irons that are lightweight and do not require
awkward thumb postures to activate the steam.

ergonomic handbook · 61

This project demonstrates that there is ample room

for ergonomic improvements in the clothing industry.
We need to continue to identify problems and, more
importantly, implement solutions to reduce the risk of
injuries in situations where we know problems exist.

Find out more!

A copy of the full report for this project can be obtained

from the Canadian Office of unite. Call us at 416-441-
1806 or 1-800-268-4064. The report includes more de-
tailed results from our ergonomic assessments, informa-
tion on lost-time injury trends in the clothing industry,
and the results of our questionnaire on work organization
at 29 clothing plants.
Check out these web sites for more information:
• unite:

• Institute for Work & Health:

• Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers:

ergonomic handbook · 63
Ergonomic Handbook
for the Clothing Industry
Injuries and muscle pain affecting the wrists, shoulders, neck
and back are common problems for workers in the clothing
industry. These injuries can be prevented! A team of researchers
from unite, the Institute for Work and Health and the
Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario workers examined
working conditions in 29 clothing factories to find out how these
injuries start and how they can be prevented. In this handbook
you can find:
• How our research project worked.
• What is ergonomics anyway?
• Common ergonomic problems in cutting, assembly, pressing and
• Solutions and recommendations for reducing the risk of injury.

This handbook is designed as a starting point for workers and

managers to improve working conditions. For a copy of the full
report from this research project, contact unite at 1-800-268-4064
or see this web site:

photo: florence marquez, unite local 459, winnipeg,

by bruce knowles / unite archives

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